Thursday, October 20, 2011
Midterm Blues, part 2
All the feedback from Ed's post has inspired me to rethink the way I formulate my tests (note to current History 104 students who might be reading this: not for the upcoming test!). I do a few things differently, and a few things the same. My normal dictum, "when in doubt, do what Ed does," might be challenged here. Ah, the moral turmoil!
At any rate, my class is broken into thirds, with an exam at the end of each third. Thus there is no midterm exactly, as students are tested in smaller chunks. I've tried four tests and two tests, and three seems about right. With two, there is just too much material to test on, and with four there seems to be a test every other week. Three is my sweet spot.
I do give a study guide in the form of 40 or so important terms. In my defense, it's a class of 120 and, more importantly, I would never ask a student merely to recite the definition of a term. Instead, I ask them to (1) know the term, (2) know why it's important in the context of the class, and (3) be able to relate it to other terms on the list. Essays about relations appear on the exam. In defense of study guides, they does allow students to focus on certain pillars in the lecture, but in my class at least students have already been warned that they will need to know why the terms are important, just not what the terms mean (for instance, DuBois is important in the context of Part One because of his book on Reconstruction and how it was ignored until the 1960s, and for his role in founding the NAACP and in fighting against Jim Crowism and lynching, not for any of his other later work). Offering a study guide was a concession to demand, one I'm still uncertain about making, and one I am trying to make work as best I can.
The other thing I've started doing (again only after three years of demand) is to post my powerpoints. The argument that finally won me over, self-indulgent as I am, was that students couldn't pay attention to the lecture (me!) because they were copying down terms from the slides. The first thing I did was cut down on the number of words on the slides, then I said sternly, "well, I'll post them, but if attendance drops I will stop!" This is the second time I've done it. Neither time has attendance dropped. That said, a picture of a navy bomber doesn't really get them very far.
One other thing I've learned is important regarding exams: giving students a choice. There are three essay questions, pick two. Students with choices don't get stuck having to answer a question they are unprepared for. Plus, it gives us instructors a bit of capital when students come to complain--you couldn't do either of these questions?
Oh, and one other thing: a timeline. I'm a big stickler that history is not, as Toynbee put it, "one damn thing after another." That said, my sister, a big-wig professional college-educated executive (Go Wildcats!), once looked at one of my tests and asked, "when again was the Great Depression?" For that reason alone I do a very broad and basic timeline (eg: "when was the Great Depression?"). Thanks sis. Generations of students are in your debt.
Now if she could only fix Ed's toilet.